Blue Rider Press, 2013, 386 pp., $27.95
f Margaret Mead channeled Hunter S. Thompson, the result might be Mark Leibovich’s This Town, a rollicking anthropological survey of Washington, DC’s incestuous political culture, vanity and venality. Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, serves up a fizzy cocktail of the “city’s self-intoxication” focused on the media, the machers, the mavens and the major players in an intersecting game of “How can this person be helpful to me?”
Starting with the funeral of Meet the Press host Tim Russert, a “great networking opportunity” thinly disguised as a solemn occasion, Leibovich describes a city where half the characters laugh all the way to the bank and the other half all the way to the next banquette. (Despite the book’s title, there is actually a second funeral, that of Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. Washington treats his passing, too, as a networking opportunity.)
In Leibovich’s Washington, everyone is on the make. Public service is just a way station on the path to a lucrative private sector job, where your rolodex can be leveraged to help your new employer, with BP, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup being the destinations of choice. If you harbor a more entrepreneurial spirit or simply can’t corral one of those lucrative corporate positions, then you can build your multimedia “brand” through relentless networking, faux insights (delivered portentously and, fortunately, soon forgotten) and the all-important exposure on cable television and Sunday morning talk shows.
Along the way, Leibovich tosses off some canny insights, including that “punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling”, people can ascend to being “DC famous”, and that 19 former journalists joined the Obama Administration’s first term. Indeed, This Town is an ode of sorts to the great “celebrity-industrial complex”, where achieving celebrity status is not just equated with real accomplishment, it is a real accomplishment, all relentlessly fueled and feted by the media, with its customs and rituals, pecking order and self-obsession.
All of this is intermittently entertaining, in much the same way that watching YouTube videos of startled cats can be. But is any of this really new?
Note that more than half a century ago, Allen Drury wrote a fictionalized account of the confirmation process for a candidate for Secretary of State that exposed the underlying motives and maneuverings of the country’s elected officials. Advise and Consent became a national bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize (beating Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King), and was made into a movie starring America’s everyman, Henry Fonda. At one point, Drury reveals a pathway to social success that sounds very familiar:
Of course, that was the thing about Washington, really; you didn’t have to be born to anything, you could just buy your way in. “Any bitch with a million bucks, a nice house, a good caterer, and the nerve of a grand larcenist can be a social success in Washington”, people say cattily, and indeed it was entirely true . . . and then you began the routine. You got somebody you knew to introduce you to somebody she knew, and then you gave a small tea or two, and then a small cocktail party or even a small dinner . . . and you were on your way. . . . Since official Washington loves nothing as much as drinking somebody else’s liquor and eating somebody else’s food, the results were all you could hope for, and after that there were no problems.
If you just amped up the snark, that description would feel right at home in This Town. But there is something new; the difference in authorial tone is both striking and significant. In Drury’s Washington, like the Washington of today, ambitious people engaged in relentless social climbing—on their knees, if necessary. But the climbers were generally scorned, not enabled, not celebrated and certainly not glorified by the dutiful gatekeepers of that era’s culture. They are celebrated and glorified in Leibovich’s telling, for all the gatekeepers are gone, and the word “unseemly” has acquired a musty, antique odor, to the extent the term is used at all. One waits in vain for such a savvy and sophisticated reporter to summon up some outrage at the shenanigans he chronicles.
While such indignation is largely missing from This Town, a soupçon surfaced briefly in July, when Leibovich hawked his book on The Daily Show. The guest host, John Oliver, ranted against a DC culture without shame, where politicians fail upwards and where elected (and some non-elected) officials strategically monetize their public service. Leibovich duly confessed his own sins as a participant and enabler, apologized and hoped he would be forgiven.
And yet, unbidden, he plays the carnival barker for This Town’s three-ring circus. He’s not a stone thrower; at best he’s tossing a few pebbles to entertain his erstwhile targets. He’s no Jeremiah; he’s more like a jester. His writing is suffused with a knowing cynicism that unveils the seamier side of DC life and, with an insider’s wink and nod, invites us at the same time to be in on the joke. Leibovich’s bon mots aim to draw laughs, not blood. The implication is that we should forgive all the conflicted, inappropriate and borderline unethical behavior he showcases. And why not? The next party—fully catered! open bar!—is just around the corner. But after reading This Town, one can’t escape the feeling that the joke is on us, not to speak of the bill for the party.
ne also waits in vain for This Town to appreciate some of the larger public policy implications of the world it describes, such as the sorry state of the Fourth Estate and its corrosive impact on public confidence in the democratic process.
Print journalism is fast going the way of the spotted snow leopard, while investigative journalism is now largely the province of only a few periodicals. The web and the blogosphere have so accelerated the news cycle that “fact and speculation swirl in the same blizzard”, as Leibovich correctly observes. And much of what passes for news is actually “info-tainment”, where media outlets highlight oddities and celebrities as they appeal to the lowest common denominator in a frantic grab for market share. With every new administration, it seems, comes the obligatory Vanity Fair photo shoot and obsequious Washington Post Style section biographies of the new White House personnel, a quadrennial rite of passage up there with security background checks and swearing-in ceremonies.
This criticism may risk blaming the messenger. Don’t the American people actually get the media coverage they want and deserve? Perhaps. A typical day’s headlines on Yahoo! News might feature stories on hotel lobbies, comic books and an aging but still stunning Michele Pfeiffer. And in early September, as President Obama inched the country closer to at least a mini-war in the Middle East, more Americans used Google to view Miley Cyrus’s twerking at the Video Music Awards than to learn about Syria.
There is little doubt that the dumbing-down of the media has played some role in the electorate’s increasing cynicism; the consequences are not cost-free. The somnambulant economy and divided Congress have surely contributed to the sour public mood. But the behavior of the media described in This Town adds to the sinking notion that the game is fixed among a “permanent feudal class” of DC insiders. According to Pew polling data, the percentage of Americans who believe that news organizations are influenced by powerful individuals and corporations recently reached an all-time high of 80 percent.
One reason is a statistic Leibovich cites about the revolving door between Congress and K Street lobbying. In 1974, 3 percent of retiring Senators and Congressmen became lobbyists. In 2012, 50 percent of Senators and 42 percent of Congressmen did so. (At one point, Leibovich quotes Dana Milbank as saying: “If Washington’s political culture gets any more incestuous, our children are going to be born with extra fingers.”) Many avoid the negative connotations associated with the word “lobbyist” by calling themselves “consultants” or “senior advisers.” And some are beyond shame; Senator John Breaux famously bragged that his vote could not be bought, but “it could be rented.” Not even the most disgraced former official can be shamed into actually going away. After a time they all reappear, rebranded, as Leibovich puts it, “where the actual offense gets washed away, leaving just a natural sheen of notoriety.” Years ago after a scandal, the perp at least had to pretend that he had found “religion” or wanted to “spend more time with his family.” Now, apparently, all you have to do is find the way to K Street.
The prevalence of Monopoly money plays a part in this story as well. In the last presidential cycle, the campaigns spent more than $2 billion, with much of that going to negative ads shredding the other candidate. Leibovich writes that the top 150 consulting companies cleared more than $465 million in the same election cycle. Is it any wonder that a Pew research poll last year found that only a third of all Americans have a favorable view of the Federal government, the lowest rating in the past 15 years?
The media’s secular god, Walter Lippmann, once wrote that, “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” Despite having more information at our fingertips than any generation in history, and despite all the new technologies and means of capturing and disseminating news, we still have not escaped from that fundamental challenge. Even Lippmann could not appreciate just how difficult that essential task would become when so much of the media itself is compromised and complicit in the deceptions. This Town, as an object of its own derision, is an odd but telling case in point.